Our View: Bleachers expansion exposes ambiguity

Neighbors unhappy with a stadium’s expansion have been making headlines in the past week, and we’re not talking about Wrigley Field.

Instead, School District 155 and Crystal Lake South High School are catching heat from neighbors and the city of Crystal Lake over the expansion of the school’s football stadium, which butts up to a residential neighborhood.

A temporary injunction on the bleachers expansion was granted Monday after a group of neighbors, including McHenry County State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi, filed a lawsuit claiming that the district failed to go through the process to obtain city permits for variations that would greatly change the area by increasing seating capacity, creating potential flood hazards and requiring potentially more than 1,200 parking spaces.

At issue is whether the school district is required to obtain city permits for zoning variations.

The district maintains that its expansion did not need to get zoning approval from the city, and that the only approval needed was from the Regional Office of Education, as required under the Illinois school code because the code is what governs construction on school grounds.

The city disagrees and says the project is in violation of three city zoning requirements.

An Illinois Attorney General’s opinion gives municipalities some zoning control over school districts, but Regional Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn said the bleacher situation does not involve zoning.

Differences in the Attorney General’s opinion and state laws along with differing court rulings make it difficult to determine where authority lies, said Larry Frang, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League.

Assuming the neighbors’ lawsuit moves forward, it now will be up to a McHenry County judge to navigate the ambiguities in the law.

Regardless, it’s unfortunate the situation has gotten to this point. Neighbors contend they were surprised by the expansion and weren’t given an opportunity to express their concerns. The district disagrees, pointing to a public meeting it held on the matter.

The two sides were to meet Monday night, but the lawsuit put an end to that meeting. Even if it had gone on as scheduled, that meeting needed to happen sooner. The district should have been more proactive and upfront with neighbors about the project. Neighbors might ultimately still have objected to the project, but, perhaps, some compromises could have been reached.

Still, the situation appears to be headed for court, and it will require a judge to sort through the legalities.

One thing is certain. If there are ambiguities in state law regarding jurisdiction of building projects on school grounds, the state Legislature needs to take up the issue and make the law clearer.

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